ith characters such as J.P. Morgan, Joseph Pulitzer, William Vanderbilt, Michael Faraday, and Benjamin Franklin, EMPIRES OF LIGHT is an incredible melding of science and history, invention and magesty. Here is the story of the race between three titans of the Gilded Age to bring electricity to the world.
ill Jonnes is an author and historian with a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University. She has received awards from the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities and lives with her family in Baltimore.
Jonnes, a historian at Johns Hopkins (We're Still Here; Hep-Cats, Narcs and Pipe Dreams), details the rise and fall of the three visionaries who harnessed electricity, while also offering a critique of corporate greed. Her tale emphasizes the "War of the Electric Currents," in which Thomas Edison sought to defend the primacy of his direct current electrical system against George Westinghouse's higher-voltage and more broadly applicable alternating current system. Nikola Tesla, the somewhat kooky Serbian genius (and former Edison man), joined the fray on Westinghouse's side with his AC induction motor. Jonnes serves up plenty of color in an engaging and relaxed style, detailing how Edison capitalized on the "deaths by wire," or accidental electrocutions, from the AC system, sensationalized in the newspapers of the time. As she shows, Edison's "holy war" led to Westinghouse's AC being used in the first prison execution by electric chair, in 1890-which proved considerably more grisly and less humane than originally billed. For Jonnes, this history culminates neatly in a rather trite moral lesson: that corporate greed is bad. She contrasts it with the three public-minded men sketched here, who embody what Jonnes believes capitalism ought to be. Edison wanted only "the perfect workshop"; Westinghouse was interested "in helping the world" and giving his workers disability benefits; Tesla wanted to "liberate the world from drudgery." Jonnes's titans loom as monumentally as the allegorical Good Capitalists in an Ayn Rand melodrama. For those who view history as less tidy, this may strain the patience at times. 16 pages of photos not seen by PW. (On sale Aug. 19) FYI: Much of this story was covered, with more emphasis on the first execution by electric chair, in Richard Moran's Executioner's Current: Thomas Edison, George Westinghouse, and the Invention of the Electric Chair, published last October. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
"[Empires of Light] provides a wealth of colorful anecdotes
and fascinating detail."
--The Washington Post Book World
"A rollicking story of competitive zeal . . . [the book]
delivers richly on its promise: chronicling a vital stage of
American progress as seen through the lives of three
--The Wall Street Journal "Entertaining and informative . . . a lively account of how personal ambitions and hostilities fueled the interaction between science and business during the long War of the Electric Currents."
--The Los Angeles Times Book Review "Jonnes does a fine job portraying these men against the historical background of the Gilded Age in this engaging, well-documented volume."
--Chicago Tribune "[Jill Jonnes] brings [Edison, Tesla, and Westinghouse] to life through cumulative biographical detail."
--Boston Sunday Globe "A crackerjack account of the race for electrification . . . [Empires of Light] is a story of the collision of business and technology, and Jonnes tells it well."
--San Francisco Chronicle (Best Books of 2003) "The electrons fairly leap as Jonnes personifies that high-voltage history with a three-wired account."
--Johns Hopkins Magazine "Jonnes re-creates this venomous rivalry in a delightful book that may remind readers of E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime. . . . but Empires of Light is no fiction; it's a meticulously researched narrative in which famous people go baying after an elusive goal: to power cities by harnessing a hidden force wrested from the atmosphere."
--Discover "With Empires of Light, Jill Jonnes joins the genre of academicians who truly document for the nation's collective memory the significant struggles that led to commonplace conveniences of today."
--The Baltimore Sun "[Empires of Light] moves seamlessly back and forth in time. . . . Jonnes is a fine biographer and an excellent scientific and industrial historian. She's done a superb job of telling an important story."
--Rocky Mountain News "Fascinating."
--The Buffalo News "Jonnes's book makes us think about the dramatic changes electricity brought."
--Milwaukee Journal Sentinel "Compelling . . .Jill Jonnes has delivered an absorbing tale about the advent of the power grid."
--The San Diego Union-Tribune "Jonnes lucidly lays out the technical issues, playing plenty of attention to the personalities involved to liven things up for the general reader."
--Newsday.com "Jill Jonnes's Empires of Light is the most exciting science/business adventure to come out in the past decade. Once she gets past the initial discoveries of the properties of electricity, her brilliant storytelling pulls the reader into a gripping, real-life turn-of-the-century tale full of twists, turns, ironies, dirty tricks, breakthrough challenges, accomplishments, tragedies and triumphs."
--Houston Chronicle "An amazing book, one so entertaining that i treads almost like a novel . . . a powerful narrative that captures the tension of a time long gone."
--San Jose Mercury News "Thoughtful and well paced."
--Kirkus Reviews "Jonnes serves up plenty of color in an engaging and relaxed style."
--Publishers Weekly "A very accessible and informative historical account that will be fascinating reading for a general audience as well as those with a more specialized interest."
--Booklist "Compelling . . . Like the late Stephen Ambrose, historian Jill Jonnes paints her story with a broad canvas and populates it with titans."
--BookPage "A thoroughly engaging and highly informative account of three inventors who pioneered the production and distribution of electricity. Without these three engineers the world would simply not be what we know today."
--Henry Petroski, author of The Evolution of Useful Things "Jill Jonnes' Empires of Light is the captivating--no, let's say electrifying--saga of the War of the Electric Currents fought at the close of the nineteenth century with typical Gilded Age excess by Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla, and George Westinghouse. From the electrification of J. P. Morgan's New York mansion to Westinghouse's subjugation of Niagara Falls, Jonnes explains in human terms how alternating current achieved dominance over direct current, a victory of incalculable importance in the history of the world--and she tells the story with great, at times even macabre, verve, as in her account of the invention of the electric chair and its horrifying first use. Along the way she solves numerous little mysteries of electric power, among them why Broadway became nicknamed 'The Great White Way.' "
--Erik Larson, author of In the Garden of Beasts and The Devil in the White City "Empires of Light is a fascinating and vivid portrait of a tumultuous era. In a fast-paced narrative, Jill Jonnes recreates the personalities, technologies, and corporate intrigues that changed America by--literally--electrifying the nation."
--Lauren Belfer, author of City of Light